Discussion #5 – Musings on Memetics, Music and Mars Bars

[Today’s discussion sponsored by this classic episode of Seinfeld]

2014-04-26 11_07_24-Snickers Bar - YouTubeGeorge Costanza eating a chocolate bar with a fork – soon everyone is doing it

Richard Dawkins coined the term “meme” in Chapter 11 of his seminal work “The Selfish Gene” as “a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation” and thus the field of “memetics” was born. Around the turn of the century, memetics seemed to be “in fashion”, but since then the term has become discredited, the Journal of Memetics has shut down “due to a lack of quality submissions” and there are few researchers left working actively in the field.

As Gentlemen Scientists we can’t help but be fascinated by the analogy between evolutionary theory in the natural world and the transmission of ideas through time and space. Like all analogies, however, it has its limits, and part of the reason why memetics has fallen out of favour is that the analogy was taken too literally.

What is a “meme” – is it a piece of data, a “virus” or a pattern? We start by musing on analogies with genetics and computer science and reviewing some of the important contemporary ideas in memetics. Can “memes” exist inside a person’s head, or is a “meme” only meaningful as a property of a system with many minds? And what about “meta-memes” such as ethical beliefs which affect how we process other memes?

Our attitude to animals is a good test case – we used to kill them with our own hands, but now that we have outsourced the killing, we treat them as pets or even members of the family. It’s an enormously complex task to try to tease out the flow of ideas and how they affect our beliefs and behaviours. Nowadays memes flow through space at the speed of light, but they can also be transmitted across thousands of years through religious texts.

As usual, we also segue into a number of other topics – learning from history, ancient Vedic horse sacrifices and rabbit pie, to name a few. Not to mention Daniel Kahnemann’s ideas from his book Thinking Fast and Slow and a proposal for building a “meme-factorization” machine.

In a future post, we will explore “meme chemistry”, which is an alternative model that we propose in which memes are more like molecules than genes; and we will talk about “bad” memes such a smoking cigarettes which propogate and flourish despite being detrimental to their hosts.

1Memetics definition from Wikipedia – “a theory of mental content based on an analogy with Darwinian evolution, originating from the popularization of Richard Dawkins’ 1976 book The Selfish Gene.[1] Proponents describe memetics as an approach to evolutionary models of cultural information transfer”

2Journal of Memetics – now defunct, but old papers are still available. There is an interesting post titled “The revealed poverty of the gene-meme analogy – why memetics per se has failed to produce substantive results” which reads as a post-mortem of memetics.

3George Costanza didn’t eat a Mars Bar with a fork, he ate a Snickers bar with a fork.

4Susan Blackmore talks about “memeplexes” in her book “The Meme Machine”

5“A Conceptual Modeling of Meme Complexes in Stochastic Search” – a rare discussion of modelling memeplexes (paper download)

6The Multiple Drafts Model of consciousness was proposed by Daniel Dennett. Incidentally, Dennett also thinks genes are more like viruses than DNA.

7Loneliness? It’s All a State of Mind – from Neuroscience News

8Dogs are the new Offspring in One-Child China – from the Globe and Mail newspaper, March 2013

9Horse sacrifice was an important Vedic ritual that was practised by the Indo-Aryan people of early modern times.

10Here is our (undeveloped) idea for “meme factorization” : given a group of people (meme space) P, find the maximal set of memes M* that has been transmitted to and adopted by each member of the group:

1) solicit all members of the group for mental artifacts e.g. biographical information, inferred ability in technical tasks, facts and figures – defined as the sequence {m0, m1, …. mn}. These are adopted memes.

2) group all collated artifacts by individual to create a matrix M in which each column is a “meme” Mi and rows are filled out according to each individual Pj having adopted that meme:

P0: m0 m1 .. m3 m4 ..
P1: .. .. m2 .. m4 m5
P2: m0 m1 .. .. .. ..

3) Every column that is complete for each person Pj is a factored meme m*i. Set of factored memes is M* = {m*0, … m*n}. These are memes that are active inside the mind of every member of the original group P.

And a possible killer app for meme factorization:

Automate meme factorization to allow groups of people to collaboratively create a meme factor set M* for their group P. The meme set M*(P) can then become the basis of a memetic device that can be used for authentication. For example, ask people to identify memes from their meme set M*. Only someone who belongs to the group P will have adopted all memes in M*.


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